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Top VA Health Official Resigns Under Fire

The top official for veterans’ health care resigned Friday amid a firestorm over delays in care and falsified records at veteran hospitals.

Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki says he has accepted the resignation of Robert Petzel, the department’s undersecretary for health care. Shinseki had asked for the resignation, a department official later said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks with the news media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 15, 2014, after testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care.

The announcement came a day after both men were grilled at a four-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where lawmakers and veteran groups expressed exasperation of long-standing problems at the department.

Meanwhile, House Republicans scheduled a vote for Wednesday on legislation that would give Shinseki more authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators at the agency and its 152 medical centers.

When senior leaders in the VA “fail the men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country, they deserve a pink slip – not a bonus,” House Speaker John Boehner said Friday. While some Republicans in Congress have called for Shinseki to resign, Boehner is not among them.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, wrote the bill before a former VA clinic director told his committee last month that up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA center. The whistleblower also said the hospital kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.

“VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems, including the department’s stubborn disability benefits backlog and a mounting toll of at least 31 recent preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country,” Miller said.

Reports of long waits for appointments and processing benefit applications have plagued VA for years. The agency has shortened backlogs but the Phoenix problems have triggered an election-year firestorm. President Barack Obama on Wednesday tasked his deputy White House chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to review VA health care policies and procedures in light of new reports about Phoenix and other VA facilities.

“As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care,” Shinseski said in a statement Friday. He thanked Petzel for four decades of service to veterans.

Petzel was scheduled to retire this year, and Shinseki last fall had convened a commission to recommend candidates for presidential appointment to be the new undersecretary. VA is required by law to convene a commission to seek and review candidates for the position. It was unclear what Petzel’s exact retirement date was to be.

In his position, Petzel oversaw what officials say is the largest health care delivery system in the U.S. The VA operates 1700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities around the country. They employ about 300,000 people and serve about 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries each year.

Shinseki on Thursday told senators he was “mad as hell” about allegations of severe problems and said he was looking for quick results from a nationwide audit. He has rejected calls for him to resign.

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